Emergency Line

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Emergency Line (Japan, 1976)

The last of the mid-70 action/detective shows with Sonny Chiba, this one makes an immediate impression with its grit and darkness. It’s the usual ‘group of detectives’ (Chiba, Shihomi, Tani, Masaaki Daimon, Tamio Kawachi, Seigo Inoue, Yuriko Hishimi) pattern, but without jokes. The opening episode has a bitter war vet (Eiji Okada) trying to assassinate a foreign little girl flown to Japan for medical operation, and another story has Chiba, taking a bullet in his leg in the first scene, trying to penetrate a top floor condo where the shooter is holding hostages. There are also smaller delights like usual yakuza crook Eiji Go quest starring as a narcotics cop, and Toei’s regular evil gaijin Osman Yusuf as murderous diplomat in an episode that concludes with one of Chiba’s most explosive karate sequences as Chiba decides to ignore diplomatic immunity and fight his way though 20 bodyguards. Another stunt highlight involves Chiba chasing criminals. After his car falls off the cliff (!), he climbs on top of a train, then jumps down when the train is crossing a bridge, landing on the moving car’s roof, only to slip, grab the rear bumper, pull out his gun and shoot the tires. Bravo! As usual, Chiba and Japan Action Club were in charge of the action.

Not every episode is as exciting as those, though. Despite having more action than Blazing Dragnet, this is the most talkative of the four shows. There are also a couple of dullish drama/thriller stories, and Etsuko Shihomi is largely wasted in a role that offers her little to do. The rest of the cast is ok, with Tani, who has developed some charisma since Key Hunter (1968-1973) faring the best. The episodes take a bit of patience since they often reveal the gist only at the end, which is interesting but a bit odd since these aren’t strictly mystery stories. The show’s ending is exceptionally powerful and each episode closes with a beautiful theme song and closing credits montage. Gritty and atmospheric, this is a very worthy closing product for Chiba’s detective show streak.

* Original title: Daihijosen (大非常線)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Series availability: None / Review format: TV

Detectives. Eiji Go on the left.

The series really is quite gritty

Chiba’s had it

Osman Yusuf. This episode features the best role I’ve seen him in. I’ve really become a bit of a fan. He was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1920 but moved to Japan at a young age (his younger brother Osman Toruko was born in Japan and become a Japanese professional wrester). He was working on TV and movies since the 1940s, although all the roles I’ve seen him in (60s and 70s) have been small roles. He died in 1982.

Stunt action

Find Chiba in the frame!

Shihomi and Tani

Chiba and Shihomi

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Blazing Dragnet

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Blazing Dragnet (Japan, 1975-1976)

The third series in Sonny Chiba’s mid-70s streak of action packed detective shows, following The Bodyguard (1974) and The Gorilla Seven (1975), all produced for NTV where Chiba had his on TV slot in 1974-1976. This follows the usual Japanese cop series pattern with a team of detectives as the focus, also utilized in the previous two shows, with a slight new twist. The detectives now belong to a secret mobile unit, all having dull day jobs (Chiba and Hayato Tani are office clerks, Shihomi and Gajiro Sato traffic officers) as a cover and just waiting for a call by boss Nobuo Kaneko to jump in a travel van and head where ever crime is taking place.

This is the least action packed of the four shows, investing more on decently written detective storylines, though there are occasional shootouts and karate kicks by Chiba and Shihomi. An entertaining show, easily better than The Gorilla Seven, despite ultimately underutilizing the mobile police concept and not featuring anything unforgettable. Chiba’s beautiful theme is one of the show’s assets, always restoring the viewer’s hope even after a weaker episode as the song plays over end credit montage of Chiba wandering on city streets.

* Original title: Moeru sosamo (燃える捜査網)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (no subs) (June 2018) / Review format: TV

Kaneko briefing Chiba

Team meeting

Chiba and Tani in their day jobs

Tani on the job

Chiba kicking some ass

Shihomi kicking some ass

Occasional excellent cinematography

Gajiro Sato (Dragon Princess) restraining his usual comedy act. He’s a bit silly but doesn’t do anything too irritating here.

End credits montage

last but not least!

The Gorilla Seven

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The Gorilla Seven (Japan, 1975)

An initially disappointing follow-up to Sonny Chiba’s badass 1974 TV shows The Bodyguard (*). Chiba leads a private 7 man team specializing in miscellaneous protection and crime solving missions. Jiro Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi and Yuki Meguro return from The Bodyguard, Isao Natsuyagi, Akira Nishikino and Maria Elizabeth are new additions to the team. JAC is responsible for the stunts as usual.

Despite the great premise, the show suffers from excessive poor comedy and a laidback tone that is in stark contrast with the violent, even nihilist The Bodyguard. The storylines tend to be very forgettable, and so are the characters who spend half of their time fooling around. Shihomi’s character supposed to be a ninja descendant, but that is merely a bit of trivia you’d never figure out based on what her character is doing in the series.

There is much less fighting than in The Bodyguard, and too much of it is left for the less capable members such as Meguro and Natsuyagi. As a slight compensation, there’s more focus on stunts, including Chiba grabbing on to a plane about take off (he did the same stunt in Key Hunter) or hanging from a ropeway wires. Not all of the stunts are as exciting, though.

Thankfully halfway into the 26 episode show the crew seem to have realised they need to get a grip, and they do. The last 10 episodes are quite enjoyable, with better action and better stories, the highlight being a terrific episode that co-starts Masashi Ishibashi as a hitman armed with a machine gun. Other cool episodes include Shihomi going undercover, and a storyline with Jiro where two rich douche bags are hiring proxy fighters (and bikers) and betting money on whose fighter survives.

Big name quest stars are quite few in the show, and most of them appear during the late episodes. Pinky Violence star Yumiko Katayama makes a 2 scene appearance in one of the two episodes directed by Teruo Ishii, Yuriko Hishimi has a central role in one episode, and Roman Porno actress Yuri Yamashina plays Ishibashi’s girlfriend.

It’s a shame the show is so uneven since it does come with rewards towards the end. In case one starts getting bored after the first few episodes, I recommend jumping straight to episode 17 (perhaps via episodes 11 and 13) as from there on almost every episode is a good one. There is no harm in doing that, thanks to nonexistent character development and lack of any kind of story connections between the episodes.

* Chiba had his own TV slot on NTV in 1974-1976. He starred in five shows in total starting with the karate actioner The Bodyguard (1974), followed by the action/crime shows The Gorilla 7, Blazing Dragnet (1975-1976) and Emergency Line (1976), and finally the family drama Nanairo tongarashi (1976).

* Original title: The Gorilla 7 (ザ・ゴリラ7)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs) (December 2017). Review format: TV.

One of the worst episodes. The Gorillas use small radio-controlled planes to…

… fight gangsters who are comedic idiots

Thankfully there’s good stuff too, like Chiba with a gun

Jiro with a bike

Shihomi vs. Ishibashi

Chiba vs. Ishibashi

Some of the stunts are cool

Shihomi looking good

Soundtrack

Robot Keiji: The Movie

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Robot Keiji: The Movie (Japan, 1973)

Despite the title, this is not so much a “movie” as a theatrical 25 minute edit combining scenes from multiple episodes from the Robot Detective TV series. It was created for the Toei Cartoon Festival, an anime and superhero film event held by Toei during holiday seasons and aimed at children. The original TV series, which ran 26 episodes, was an early entry in the Metal Hero genre and followed a robot detective who would dress in casual clothes on his free time. Sonny Chiba appeared in one episode, and his brother Jiro had a role as a (human) detective. The Movie Version compiles selected scenes from episodes 1-9, 11 and 12. As such, it’s quite difficult to follow unless you’ve seen the original TV series as there is clearly too much content crammed into 25 minutes. It has also been cropped from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio to theatrical 2.35:1, which causes major amounts of information to be cut off from top and bottom. That being said, the original TV series seems fun.

* Original title: Robotto keiji: gekijoban (ロボット刑事: 劇場版)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Cameo (in the movie version)
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV
* TV series availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

The detective’s car

I can’t stop laughing at this bad “guy” (bad robot?) who kidnapped the lady…

As you can see, the framing is often way too tight vertically

Jiro and Sonny

Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler

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Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler (Japan, 1972)

The first Wandering Ginza Butterfly movie (which did not feature Chiba) was a bit of a mishmash that brought Meiko Kaji, who had just quit Nikkatsu, to Toei. Toei saw her as potential heir to Junko Fuji, their biggest female yakuza star whose retirement earlier in 1972 had ended the Red Peony Gambler series and put another nail in the soon-to-be-buried ninkyo yakuza genre which Toei was reluctant to let die. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, who was fresh off from his trendy and contemporary Delinquent Girl Boss series, turned the film into a hybrid between modern and old school yakuza films. The movie had its share of exhilarating scenes, but was also too routinely written with silly comedic relief and standard yakuza trappings to be a classic.

This slightly superior sequel gets off to a very good start with boobs, sunset, a Meiko Kaji theme song, and an excellent gambling duel before the film has even hit the 12 minute mark. A moment later Sonny Chiba shows up as a goofy entrepreneur running a small prostitution business! Unfortunately the rest of the film is not as good, save for the finale. The film comes with the usual yakuza film clichés, including Chiba’s comedy sidekick (Toru Yuri), an evil gang harassing girls, and an old ex yakuza (Junzaburô Ban, who played identical role in Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess) trying to do something good for once. However, the tale comes back to life big time at the end where Kaji and Chiba, armed with swords and pistols, finally decide they’ve had enough of it! This isn’t a movie that utilizes Kaji’s talent, but she’s gorgeous as usual. Chiba looks like he ran off from the set of a Yakuza Deka film and started dealing girls instead of catching bad guys. It’s nice to have him here, although the finale is his only real standout. Unlike in the 1st film, there’s not much of ninkyo influence left in this production, and perhaps that was for the best.

* Original title: Gincho nagaremono mesuneko bakuchi (銀蝶渡り鳥 牝猫博奕)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role
* Film availability: Synapse DVD (USA), Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Kaji playing againts Shingo Yamashi

Club scene reminiscent of the Delinquent Girl Boss and Stray Cat Rock films

Yukie Kagawa on the fight

Chiba and Toru Yuri

King of Gangsters

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King of Gangsters (Japan, 1967)

The 11th and final film in the Gang series. Most of the films had different directors and cast, and were only connected by the title and Toei’s marketing department. Unlike the early entries, which were jazzy capers, this final entry is a prototype jitsuroku yakuza film. Just back from the war, Noboru Ando leads a gang of war vets turned gangster in the US occupied streets of Tokyo. They get into a conflict with a Chinese gang as well as the military police. Tetsuro Tamba appears as a police chief trying to bring peace to the streets; 1st wave pinky violence star Masumi Tachibana is a girl grieving his dead gangster father. Like many of director Yasuo Furuhata’s films, this is light on action and relatively realistic in characterization to the point becoming dull. It is more interesting as a somewhat nationalistic peek into the history of Japan and modern yakuza than as a gangster flick. Sonny Chiba plays one of Ando’s men, but like most supporting roles in the film, his part is ultimately minor despite getting a decent amount of screen time.

* Original title: Gyangu no teiô (ギャングの帝王)
* Director: Yasuo Furuhata
* Chiba’s role: Minor Supporting Role
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV

Ando in the middle. Hideo “I’m in every gangster flick” Murota in the backround

Sonny Chiba (right) and Shingo Yamashiro (in a relatively non-comedic role)

Four Sisters

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Four Sisters (Japan, 1962)

Fans of Sonny Chiba’s violent action movies may find it surprising that there was a time when he was occasionally cast as “love interest”. Such is the case in this film, which is a bit of an unusual movie in Toei’s generally very masculine body of work. It’s a family drama (adapted from a novel by Fumio Niwa) about four sisters and their mother who wants to marry them off to respectable and successful men rather than to the ones they really love. The protagonist (Yoshiko Mita) is being arranged to businessman Fumio Watanabe although her heart belongs to handsome but poor Chiba. Chiba has only four or five scenes but he’s bursting with youthful energy as he often did in his early roles. The film itself is decent in a genre that is not exactly my cup of green tea.

* Original title: Sanroku (山麓)
* Director: Masaharu Segawa
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: None. Review format: 16mm

Mid-August Commotion

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Mid-August Commotion (Japan, 1962)

Toei’s early 1962 release The Escape, which was one of the many films depicting the February 26th Incident of 1936, must have been a success since this movie, released in August, is almost a carbon copy. It is, however, loosely based on a different true story. This one deals with Japan’s surrendering in WWII. On August 14-15 the surrendering declaration had already been prepared for broadcasting; however, a group of rebel soldiers attempted a coup d’état (just like February 26th) by invading the emperor’s palace. Koji Tsuruta is the hero trying to get the recording out of the house for public broadcasting. It’s a standard film that works pretty well once the action begins; however there’s a good 45 minutes of talk before things start rolling. Sonny Chiba, who had a tiny role as a solder in The Escape, has a few more minutes of screen time here as a doctor invited to the house as a part of the plot to get Tsuruta out.

* Original title: 八月十五日の動乱 (8 gatsu 15 nichi no douran)
* Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: None / Review format: TV

New 7 Color Mask

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New 7 Color Mask (Japan, 1960)

Sonny Chiba landed his very first acting role with a bit of luck. Drafted by Toei in 1959, he replaced Susumu Namishima in Toei’s first ever superhero TV show 7 Color Mask after Namishima dropped out after 31 episodes. Chiba took his role as Detective Ran (the show was then renamed as New 7 Color Mask), a master of disguise fighting all sorts of foreign super villains threatening Japan, including “Golden King” and a middle east terrorist group using poison gas emitting spiders. Ran’s ace in the sleeve was turning into an invincible masked superhero, 7 Color Mask. It’s a world where kilt-wearing masked villains are running around in broad daylight, the police bow to a private detective who solves all crimes for them, and everybody is always fooled by the silliest of disguises. A bit of child-like mindset is required from the viewer.

Chiba himself looks self-assured as stylish as hell in black suit, also benefiting from solid production values (the series was originally meant to be released as edited movie versions in theatres as well, hence shot on 35mm, though only Namishima’s episodes made it to the silver screen). Chiba did all of his own stunts and fighting, with no “suit actor” (stunt performer for the superhero scenes) utilized in the show. The show’s main liability is its unimaginative writing. Ran’s invincibility always saves him from any trouble, and storylines tend to drag a bit until it’s time for the bad guys to get caught.

Toei produced a total of 26 episodes of the show. Episodes 1-13 are included in Toei’s recent 4 disc DVD set. Episode 14 is also featured as an extra. The rest will probably never be seen as, according to Toei’s announcement, the negatives are lost. This seems to have been the case already back in the 1980s when the same 13 episodes were released on video. The positive news is that the series is made of independent story arcs, 1-13 episodes each. The DVD release contains the first two stories (episodes 1-6 and 7-13) in their entirety. The final story arch (episodes 14-26) is missing except for the first episode (14). It’s a shame because that story looked very cool, but at least the first two stories can still be enjoyed.

* Original title: 新七色仮面 (Shin nana iro kamen)
* Director: Toshiro Suzuki
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)